I am a writer, too, kinda.
I am also writing a novel.
I’m working on a novel.
I also write.
I’ve been working on this novel.
These were the phrases always trotted out when I had a desk job and never had the mental state or time to write. For years, I had countless beginning drafts of a novel languishing in my Google Drive—I had always wanted to write fiction, but my body was slowly falling to the inertia of a monotonous work-life routine. I would wake up and prepare myself for the day, commute on a train to work hunched over the distractions of my phone, sit at a desk job for the better part of the day, occasionally go and meet friends afterward, sleep, and repeat. My mind was always exhausted from the labor of filing and responding to endless emails, attending meetings, and coming up with creative copy for a marketing job. Yoga just barely kept me from burning out. The three pages of the beginnings of a novel collected digital dust.
Excerpt from Volume 21, now available
Banner photo of Rafael Vargas in Costa Rica by Sol Sun Media.
But then I discovered rock climbing, and my body was thrown out of its usual orbit. I had to figure out how to move vertically, how to twist my body against gravity, how to find force in my fingers, which previously had only been used to type on keyboards. The introduction of this movement sparked the beginning of a massive change in how I approached writing.
The first time I bouldered inside, my usually anxious and busy mind turned quiet and focused, trying to figure out the problem before me. The intense concentration to the physical plane of existence freed my mental prison of writer’s block. That night I went home and wrote about the experience, invigorated by how differently I could see the world just by moving differently in it. As I built up the strength in my fingers on the wall, they became more powerful on the page. If I hadn’t started climbing, I wouldn’t be a full-time writer now.
Becoming a climber made me realize that the best rewards in life are the ones that come when you take risks with persistence. I always wanted to be a writer. As a kid, I dreamt of having a New York Times bestseller, kept countless journals, wrote hundreds of letters (which then turned into writing overly long emails) to friends, and scribbled notes whenever possible. But as I got older, “reality” was forced upon me. A few older mentors told me that being a writer was a fanciful dream, and the reality of it was far more harsh: to be a writer meant automatic hardship, mental and financial, and a lottery chance of success. In short, becoming a writer was not merely impractical but most likely impossible. I cast aside my childhood dream of being a writer for a more traditional and reliable desk job in marketing—if I couldn’t tell my own stories, I could be paid well to spin stories for brands in order to make more sales.
I did my job dutifully and practiced yoga to keep stress levels down from the breakneck speed of corporate startup culture. But then, in my midtwenties, fate landed me a desk job in the most unlikely of places: a climbing gym. I wasn’t good at climbing at first—a V3 seemed impossible, until, slowly, I got better. And by learning how to climb, I learned how to make the impossible possible. It was through climbing that I found myself and the courage to transition into becoming a real writer.
There is a special relationship between climbing and writing; both require stamina; courage; a careful planning of what you’ll do (and encourage spontaneous discovery, a stream of consciousness, and movement); and most importantly, an open, creative mind. Writers who want to improve their writing would do well to start rock climbing, and climbers who want to improve their skills on the rocks should try their hand at writing.
There is precedent to this mind-body connection. Writers have had a notoriously long-standing love affair with running: Murakami attributes his ability to wake up at 4:00 a.m. every morning and write for a continuous 5-hour block to his daily 10-kilometer run, Joyce Carol Oates is a lifelong runner who attributes the activity to her ability to tackle structural problems, Malcolm Gladwell runs to get “unstuck,” and novelist Don Dellio runs after four-hour blocks of writing “to shake off one world” and enter the next. As someone who has always been an athlete, I understand intimately the benefits of physical sport for the mental fortitude writing requires. But I hate running. It can be rough on the joints, is the least effective way to get fit, and is frankly just boring—it’s challenging in a very linear way. The meditative quality is indisputable, but then, runners usually need to be moving in order to still their minds, a crutch that I want nothing to do with.
Climbing and writing are both foundational skills that we learn at a young age—as we gain motor skills, we learn how to climb out of cribs, ascend stairs and ladders, and hone our spatial and directional awareness, balance, and agility. Learning to write with a pen or pencil is another significant fine-motor skill, which necessitates coordination of small muscles and movements of the hands, fingers, and eyes. For the most part, writing (communicating) and moving around the world are fundamental to existing in the modern world.
And yet, to call oneself a “writer,” one must take the craft of writing more seriously; one practices it daily, refines their skills, and creates something from nothing. Even those who write a lot struggle with when they can officially take on the title, in a similar vein of how there is a lot of debate of when one can call oneself a “climber” (or perhaps this is simply the neuroticism of writers applying this existential crisis to all other areas of their life, since, the authors of pieces in this zine who have questioned what it means to be a “climber” are all, undoubtedly, writers). I don’t wish to go down that philosophical rabbit hole, but instead propose simply that if you write, you are a writer. And if you climb, you are a climber. And if you only identify as one of the two, you should try the other.
From an early age, most people are categorized into mutually exclusive boxes: athletes, jocks, nerds, writers, punks, freaks. This leads to a world where people tend to prioritize either their mind, a life based on mental work and intellect, where physical activity and health comes second, or their body, a life anchored in manual labor and movement, where self-expression by way of language and communication are secondary. Basically, a world where people tend to either only work on their outer selves and bodies or people who only engage in interior investigation without paying their physical selves any mind.
To take this to the extreme, I am reminded of this David Foster Wallace essay called “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” where he writes about the allure of getting inside a mind of a sports prodigy, “because top athletes are profound, because they make a certain type of genius as carnally discernible as it ever can get, these ghost-written invitations inside their lives and their skulls are terribly seductive…the memoirs make a promise—to let us penetrate the indefinable mystery of what makes some persons geniuses, semi divine, to share with us the secret.” But the essay centers instead on his absolute crushing disappointment with that promise—Wallace found the memoir to be vapid, void of any real depth, and in the end concludes that what makes genius athletes so great is their ability to be in the moment. To be so completely focused that they think of nothing at all. Wallace then agonizes that his type of genius—the kind bestowed upon writers—can only truly “see, articulate and animate the experience of a gift we are denied,” thus categorically dividing the artist and the athlete. In Wallace’s world, and mind, the trope of the troubled, depressed artist is a truth and often too analytical and can get lost trying to decipher and express a moment because they cannot simply exist in the way that a great athlete can.
I would disagree with him and respectfully say that Wallace’s life could have benefitted from a bit of bouldering or sport. Dividing the artist and the athlete into two mutually exclusive stereotypes is far too limiting, and I believe to truly reach the highest form of self-expression as both an artist and an athlete, one needs to develop both the mind and body. Writing, like climbing, is often described as hard. To write a novel seems like an impossible feat, one so intimidating, one that can take years of dedication. To the layperson, climbing just a V5 or a 5.10 outside also seems unthinkable. But both are easily achievable with persistence. For me, writing was always a hobby, a passion I had relegated to morning routines because so many people had told me that it was too difficult, too impossible to make a living as a writer. It wasn’t until I began rock climbing that I realized that this wasn’t true at all.
How Climbing Made Me a Better Writer:
Acceptance of Rejection: Most people are afraid to do what they really want because they’re afraid of failure. It was always much easier to speak about my dreams of writing in the conditional tense: that I would write if I had the time, the money, the connections, or whatever, instead of just trying to do the damn thing and then having to say I failed. It’s more comforting to argue for your limitations than to face failure. But anyone who climbs knows that failure is woven into the fabric of the sport, and after a while, rejection is reduced to something that simply happens again and again before you succeed.
When I started climbing, I found myself getting shut down on the easiest gym climbs—but then I looked around and saw that most people were getting shut down on their projects. Writing is a far more solitary affair than climbing, and while I know any writer will talk about how rejection is also simply part of the job, it’s helpful to actually see other people struggle, struggle, and struggle some more before they succeed.
Persistence: To get better at climbing, the advice most people give to new climbers is simple: climb more, and climb a lot. Writing requires the same persistent engagement: one just has to string words together again and again, in one order, in a different way, backspace, delete, cut, copy, paste, and play with words until you find a flow that is comfortable. And just as learning technique is key to good climbing, it is the same for writing: you learn how to cut out unnecessary words for clarity (like cutting out unnecessary motion on the wall to save energy), how to effectively stake a (climbing) flag in the ground as metaphor, and the craft of telling stories (or, solving problems with a good start, middle, and finish).
Stamina + Flow State: Writing a lot and consistently can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be that hard. Nor does it have to take that much time. Unfortunately, most writer’s let Parkinson’s law dictate their work habits—the time it takes to complete a project expands to fill the time available for its completion. Climbing bouldering problems, especially, has taught me the importance of stamina: the ability to sustain prolonged physical or mental effort. When you climb, you hone your ability to focus because there is so much more at risk (falling on your ass from ten feet off the ground will do wonders for your powers of concentration). The ability to focus and reach a flow state is crucial to getting a lot done in writing. When I write, I usually aim to write anywhere from one thousand to three thousand words a day. I sit down and type furiously—turn off any distractions—and, without breaks, write until I hit my writing goal. And then edit from there.